Humanism: theoretical, elitist & speciesist?
Milton Keynes Humanists’ next meeting is entitled ‘Why I am a Humanist’, and in preparation we thought it would be interesting to test the strength of argument against Humanism. If you put ‘Why I am NOT a Humanist’ into Google, apart from the inevitable sniping, you’ll find some interesting and coherent criticism. This comes not so much from religionists but from atheists and freethinkers. I have drawn heavily on this material in preparing the following summary and would be interested to get other Humanist’s views on the matter.
Humanism is a philosophy for the educated, well-to-do and privileged; it is not for those living in dire poverty and hardship for whom stories of a benevolent ‘Heavenly Father’ and being ‘reunited with loved ones’ are understandable (many have had little or no schooling) and provide some hope and comfort in a hard life. (It is not easy to accept the Atheist’s idea of a ‘pointless universe’ and ‘eternal oblivion’.)
Humanism comes across as more of an intellectual endeavour than an emotionally-engaging philosophy. Contrast the mainstream religions which involve elaborate systems of rituals and practices that provide a context for people’s beliefs and values, and help channel their feelings and emotions. What most people yearn for is answers not endless questions, uncertainty and debate.
3 Talking Shop
Humanist groups are little more than talking shops which singularly fail to engage with the community. Humanists shouldn’t just tell people how to live a good life, they should show them — organise social work, support local charities, start community gardens, offer courses in local centres, hold fetes and public barbecues, etc.
It is invidious to describe early philosophers as ‘humanist’. Democritus and Epicurus are sometimes cited as ‘forefathers of humanism’ but they are just as much the precursors of scientific rationalism. Nothing is gained by calling them proto-humanists except to try and give Humanism some sort of historical weight and worth.
Why should anyone ‘believe in Man’ or have ‘faith in humanity’? Homo sapiens might have produced Einstein, Leonardo and Shakespeare but it has also given us Hitler, Stalin and Pol Pot. The notion that man is at the pinnacle of evolution is pompous and egotistical.
Adulation of the human intellect (unique as it appears to be) encourages the old-fashioned nonsense that men and women are somehow set apart from other living organisms — or worse, that the human race has an evolutionary destiny to conquer and subdue nature. This attitude only encourages the cruel exploitation of animals for food, clothing, experiments and sport.
Humanism is imperialistic: it asks people to follow an essentially western world view and fails to acknowledge the huge diversity of human culture and experience.
8 Institutionalised Thinking
Some freethinkers are against any institutionalisation of their life-philosophy, be it by Humanists, Atheists or whoever. They don’t want to associate themselves with movements for fear of taint or compromise, and they don’t want to join a club, however benign it may appear, because of the risk it will acquire undesirable institutional paraphernalia — dogma, abuse of power, cronyism and the cult of personality. The search for and maintenance of ‘the truth’ is more important than contrived efforts always to seem positive.
I’ve done my best to make the arguments robust but I can’t help feeling that some of the above are simply the result of misunderstanding (and in some cases outright misrepresentations) of what Humanists stand for; ‘straw men’ set up to be knocked down. That said a few of the comments do give me pause for thought, notably points 1, 2 and 3 — as do people who stridently promote ‘The Truth’, whether they are coming from a religious or a secular platform. (Is truth ever absolute?) I don’t think soap-boxing is very effective when it comes to penetrating the mind-set of people indoctrinated in religion from an early age and it does little to promote understanding and social harmony.
Humanism may not have a Unique Selling Point but it does provide a good platform for those who reject blind faith and superstition and find hedonistic consumerism deeply unsatisfying. For my part I am more than happy to be in a movement that strives to make the world a better place by promoting freedom of thought, social responsibility and consideration for others. And I’ve not so far come across anything to shake my faith in Humanism and what it has to offer.
Milton Keynes Humanists’ next meeting is on Thursday 14th June. All welcome — see: www.mkhumanists.org.uk. The views expressed in this note are personal and do not necessarily represent the views of Milton Keynes Humanists.
By Mike Flood, Chair of Milton Keynes Humanists.